The NBA is slated to return from its extended hiatus on July 30, and there will be no shortage of star power on display as the league’s top 22 teams head to Orlando. LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard anchor two Los Angeles juggernauts, while Giannis Antetokounmpo looks to cement his status as a global icon with the Larry O’Brien Trophy. After over four months without basketball, the attention on the postseason could be greater than ever.
We know most of the stars that will take center stage in the coming months, but which players could arrive on the public’s radar sooner than expected? We at The Crossover examined the top breakout candidates ahead of the 2020 playoffs.
Michael Porter Jr.
There’s no debating Michael Porter Jr.’s sheer offensive talent. Denver’s young forward burst onto the scene as a high school phenom in the latter part of last decade, sporting a 6’10” frame and a silky smooth jumper. Porter was the nation’s No. 2 recruit in 2017, and as his freshman year at Missouri approached, he drew comparisons to Kevin Durant. Porter’s path since hasn’t exactly been smooth.
The 22-year-old played just three games at Missouri due to back surgery, and further back trouble cost him his rookie season with the Nuggets. Now entering the Orlando bubble presumably healthy, Porter could make a marked impact in his first postseason appearance.
Porter is averaging 19.2 points per 36 minutes this season, shooting 49.5% from the field and 42.2% from three. And his immense talent is evident when looking past the box score. Porter has the length and the mechanics to comfortably get a shot off over any defender, and he glides to the rim gracefully for a player of his size. Mike Malone has been stingy with Porter’s minutes throughout the season, though the Nuggets coach will likely take off the training wheels in the postseason. With more time on the floor, Porter could emerge as the third scorer Denver so desperately needs.
Houston’s midseason acquisition isn’t an unknown in NBA circles, though his talent may not be completely noticeable to the average fan. Covington has never made an All-Star team in eight seasons, and he’s never averaged over 14 points per game in a season. In a league littered with three-and-D wings, Covington is viewed by most as a quality–albeit unspectacular–piece. But that notion underrates his impact.
Covington has been a downright dominant defensive force for the Rockets since joining Houston on Feb. 4. Only Myles Turner and Hassan Whiteside have more blocks in the last 14 games, and of the 12 players with 20 blocks in that span, only Anthony Davis has more steals. Covington can legitimately guard all five positions, and he covers the opponent’s premier scorer nearly every night. He should earn another All-Defense honor in the coming seasons.
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey went all-in on his small-ball experiment when he effectively swapped Clint Capela for Covington, and thus far, the move has paid off. Houston won seven of its first nine games with Covington–including wins over the Lakers, Celtics and Jazz–and the Rockets sport the NBA’s No. 8 net rating since Feb. 4. Covington and P.J. Tucker form a potent defensive frontcourt despite a lack of size, anchoring Houston’s switch-everything defense. Covington is an elite weak-side helper and rotational shot blocker. His effort is a constant (something that can’t be said for Capela). If Houston’s unconventional roster makes a run to the Finals, Covington will be a major reason why.
After three seasons as a one-man wrecking crew, the Thunder have thrived this season thanks to a three-headed monster in the backcourt. The trio of Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has shredded teams to the tune of plus-26.6 points per 100 possessions this season, providing a catalyst for the Thunder’s 40–24 record. Paul has returned as a true floor general after splitting duties with James Harden, while Dennis Schroder is in the midst of a career year as a slasher and transition force. Gilgeous-Alexander is in some ways Oklahoma City’s glue. The Kentucky product meshes well as a combo guard alongside each of the aforementioned point guards, able to both create his own shot off the bounce and provide reliable stretch from beyond the arc. Imagine if Oklahoma City had a second guard of his caliber before Kevin Durant's departure.
Gilgeous-Alexander leads Oklahoma City in scoring at 19.3 points per game, sporting an efficient 51.1% effective field goal percentage. He’s a shifty and effective scorer at the rim thanks to his impressive wingspan, and his three-point percentage (35%) has held steady in 2019-20 despite nearly doubling his attempts compared to his rookie season. Add in the 13th-most clutch points in the league on 57.4% shooting, and Gilgeous-Alexander has been better than advertised in his second season. The Thunder have a franchise cornerstone in place, one who could impact the playoffs in a major way sooner than later.
While the three aforementioned players could have a serious impact in the playoffs, Rui Hachimura’s season is all-but-guaranteed to end in August. The Wizards currently sit No. 9 in the Eastern Conference at 24–40, needing to make up ground of the Magic or Nets to trigger a play-in scenario. And even if Washington snags the No. 8 seed, a quick sweep at the hands of the Bucks is on the horizon. But despite the dreary outlook from a team perspective, the contests in Orlando could prove valuable to Hachimura and the Wizards’ collection of youngsters. The Gonzaga product could continue to establish himself as a top member of the 2019 draft class.
Hachimura’s offensive skill has been evident from his opening week in the NBA. He scored in double figures in each of his first four contests, including a 23-point effort against Houston. Hachimura’s game remains a touch raw after starting just one season at Gonzaga, though the outline of an impact forward is clear. Hachimura isn’t quite a reliable spacer, yet he can generate his own offense outside of tip-ins and dunks. Hachimura is crafty off the bounce with a nice touch around the rim. He can unveil a sharp spin move that resembles Pascal Siakam if you squint hard enough, and he’s not afraid of contact at the rim. With Davis Bertans sitting out, Hachimura will see an increased role in Orlando. A strong performance could position him as a true building block as Washington looks to preserve the Wall-Beal era.